Monday, 28 April 2008

The Multimap Alternative

In recent posts I've complained about the automatic (and unannounced) redirection from MS Live Search Maps of UK users to Multimap. I have to say that my complaint is more about the unannounced and seemingly random nature of the redirection, rather than a complaint about the destination.

I always used to use Multimap. Prior to Google Maps and Live Maps it was simply the very best mapping and aerial imagery site for the UK. Nowhere else gave anything like the photographic resolution, though it didn't approach that available today. Clearly many people have turned their backs on Multimap, but it certainly doesn't hurt to go back and have another look.

The site is very different to how it used to look, and has a much cleaner appearance. You can chose between the more traditional navigation ('Basic Maps') and the more modern AJAX style interface ('Interactive Maps'). Bizarrely, and annoyingly, it forgets where you were looking at if you switch types of map, and drops you back at the last place you searched for when you switch between the basic and interactive styles, defaulting to the Lake District if you used the navigation controls rather than the search box.

Choice of maps is definitely Multimap's trump card. At the 500 yards to 1 mile scales you can select either Tele Atlas or Ordnance Survey 1:50k scale maps. Having large area OS maps available like this is excellent. The OS Get-a-map experience offers 1:50k and even 1:25k map extracts, but only in small patches of 400x400 pixels, and you lose a bit off the bottom of that with the copyright statment. Multimap offers a much bigger 933x642 map area on my monitor. It must be borne in mind that whilst this is possibly the best free online OS map display, it is smaller than the alternative non-OS maps from both MS and Google.

The Tele Atlas maps are perhaps more geared towards the UK user, with motorways in blue rather than the Live Maps brown. Comparing map currency between Multimap, Live Maps and Google Maps reveals a complicated picture. No doubt this varies hugely from place to place, but for a patch of my home town of Bromsgrove where there has been some recent building construction, I found Google Maps to have the most recent aerial photography and Live Maps to have the most recent road mapping data. Multimap is an oddball, in that it uses different road data depending upon whether it is in Map mode or Aerial Photo mode with a road overlay. The former uses (c)2007 Tele Atlas, the latter a more up to date (c)2008 Navteq/(c)2007 Intermap.

There is still advertising on the Multimap site and unfortunately it is of the annoying, distracting animated flash banner variety, which is a big minus for me.

On the plus side Multimap gives a continuous display of post code district, grid reference, latitude and longitude. This information is placed below the map area, which entails scrolling. There is some initial awkwardness as you realise your mouse wheel is for scrolling windows and for zooming maps - just make sure you point at the right area of the screen for what you want. A minor niggle, but one that does not tend to arise with the two alternatives as they don't tend to put all that much below the map, if anything. One more plus: Multimap can search by grid reference, which is something the others cannot do.

The left hand pane shows a series of collapsible panels for 'Useful Information', 'hotels and accommodation', 'search history' and 'favourite routes and places'. There doesn't seem to be a way to remove or rearrange these. Personally I'd remove the hotels bar, or at least move it to the bottom, as it will definitely be the least used of those.

The Get Directions section is rather tidy. The routes I've checked all look sensible, and it includes the option for walking as well as driving routes. As an added gimmick It even tells you your carbon footprint for the journey!

The 'Find a Business' section seems awkward to use. When you search it defaults to showing numbered pins in a small map area. These reveal panels with a little more detail when clicked. Alternatively at this point you can select the rather more accessible results list, which is accompanied by a thumbnail map. The listings all seem to be drawn from Thomson's Local Directory, which I'm sure is broad, deep and current. I just can't help feeling that the interface needs more work.

So in summary, Multimap has some unique features which make it of interest to UK users, in particular Ordnance Survey maps and grid references. It doesn't do everything as good as Live Maps or Google Earth, but I think overall we just have an embarrassment of riches. My advice is to try the features of each and use different tools for different jobs.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Multimap just keeps coming back

So far this evening on two occasions Live Search Maps/Virtual Earth for UK users has redirected back to Multimap. Please guys, this is becoming a total bore. The changes announced last week really don't strike me as anything you can't test offline.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Microsoft Drops the Ball with Virtual Earth in the UK

Update 2: ...but picks it right back up again. All is explained. It's a bit like Pam's dream.

Update 23:48 13th April: It looks like somebody is listening, as Live Maps has been reinstated for UK users, at least for now.

For the last couple of days UK users accessing MS Live Search Maps, perhaps hoping to use the enhanced Virtual Earth 3D features excitedly announced on the Virtual Earth/Live maps blog, have found themselves unexpectedly dumped at multimap. Now, multimap offers some useful features, but it isn't Virtual Earth.

Want the 3D interface? Forget it.

Want to use your SpaceNavigator? Forget it.

Want to access your stored collections, pushpins or 3D models? Forget it.

All gone.

As a partial fix, you can pretend to be a US user by heading to, and everything seems to work, though of course you lose the integration with Live Search.

There are reports that Microsoft are reviewing their decision in the light of the number of complaints they have received about this. It would be nice to hope that a more intelligent way of integrating the best of multimap into Virtual Earth could be found, rather than chucking out half of Virtual Earth to support multimap.

Friday, 4 April 2008


The University of Southern California Interactive Media Team have recognised the difficulty of aligning photographs in Google Earth for PhotoOverlays and have made it the target of their Viewfinder project. They state their objective as "to provide a straightforward procedure for geo-locating photos of any kind" and specify that "a 10-year-old should be able to find the pose of a photo in less than a minute".

Aligning PhotoOverlays in Google Earth can be a very time-consuming job. For example, my Abbey Road and Gliding PhotoOverlays were very tricky to set up, even with the help of flickr photos showing me exactly where the camera is for the former, and a bit of messing about with Imagemodeler for the latter.

To get a good match, not only do you have to figure out the position on the map where the photograph was taken, you also have to determine how high off the ground the camera was, its orientation (pitch, roll and yaw) and the characteristics of the lens used. With so many variables you can end up tweaking for ages and still not get things exactly right.

The Viewfinder team have focussed on two 'pose finding' methods. The 2D-to-2D method starts with the user selecting the position from which the photo was taken on Google Maps, then using a browser-based tool that feeds back the equivalent Google Earth view to refine the position and orientation of the camera. A screen shot from Google Earth is then loaded into a second tool in which the translation and scaling of the photo can be fine tuned to achieve the best match.

Even more amazing is the 2D-to-3D method, in which a 3D model of an element in the scene is brought into correspondence with the photograph by dragging model vertices to their projected positions, in a manner reminiscent of canoma.

The Viewfinder team's progress report makes fascinating reading, and hopefully is a taste of things to come. It isn't mentioned in the progress report as a related program, but I think there would be obvious benefits to linking Viewfinder with PhotoSketch.